Configuring Parental Controls

Last week we explored the Users & Groups system preference. In that lesson I didn’t throughly explain the Parental Controls preference. Now’s the time.

It’s the unwise parent who grants their young child unguarded access to the Internet. Thankfully, Mountain Lion provides some protection with its built-in Parental Controls. If you’re concerned about what your child might see online—or are simply keen to limit the time your Mac-obsessed spawn spends in front of the computer—you should take a long look at Parental Controls.

Don’t have a child (or at least one who needs managing)? Parental Controls isn’t just for parents and kids. If you’re the more experienced Mac user in a household and are setting up a Mac for someone new to it, it’s not a terrible idea to impose some restrictions on that account. This isn’t for the purpose of protecting that person from iffy content, but rather to simplify the interface and keep them from getting lost.

Setting up a controlled account

Before you can control what someone can and can’t do with the Mac, you have to create an account with controls. Doing so is simple.

Launch System Preferences, select the Users & Groups preference, and in the resulting Accounts window click the Lock icon at the bottom of the screen. When prompted, enter an administrator’s name and password, and click OK. Below the list of accounts click on the Plus (+) button, and in the sheet that appears select Managed With Parental Controls from the New Account pop-up menu. Fill in the remaining fields with name, account name, password, password verification, and, optionally, a password hint. Click Create User, and the controlled account is born.

To begin configuring the account, click the Open Parental Controls button at the bottom of the Accounts window. If you don’t care to configure the account now, you can always navigate to these controls later by launching System Preferences and then choosing Parental Controls. The controlled account you created will appear in a list on the left side of the Parental Controls window.

Once you’ve created a controlled account, you can choose to administer it remotely from another computer on your local network. This allows you, for example, to sit at your MacBook Pro in the home office and change parental controls on the family iMac in the living room. When creating such a remotely controlled account, click the small gear icon at the bottom of the accounts list, and choose Allow Remote Setup.

To administer this account from your computer (versus the computer on which you’ve set up the controlled account), choose the Parental Controls system preference, click the lock icon, and enter an administrator’s name and password. Now select the name of the controlled account on the other computer (its name will appear under the Other Computers heading). In the sheet that appears, enter an administrator’s name and password for the Mac that has the controlled account. After you’ve done this successfully, you can use all the tabs within Parental Controls to configure and monitor the other Mac’s controlled account.

Simplify the system

New or inexperienced users—regardless of age—can find themselves lost when they first boot up a Mac. Use Parental Controls to narrow down their choices to only the programs and functions they need, and you’ll make the computer that much easier to use. Do this by switching on Use Simple Finder in the Parental Controls’ Apps tab. With this option enabled, the account displays just four menus in the Finder—the Apple, Finder, File, and Help menus. The Apple menu has very few options—About This Mac, Force Quit, Sleep, and Log Out. The Dock contains only Applications, Documents, and Shared folders. And when you click the Applications folder, a window appears where application icons are displayed. A single click launches an application.

You can limit applications by rating.

Within this same window you can select exactly which applications you’d like to allow the account to use by enabling the Limit Applications option. You can allow Mail and Safari, but not Messages, for example. You can also filter applications you’ve purchased from the Mac App Store by their rating. For instance, you could allow those applications rated appropriate for ages up to 9+ (see screenshot at right), but nothing with a more mature rating. In addition, if you haven’t enabled the Use Simple Finder option, you can choose to keep the user from modifying the Dock.

Avoiding Web entanglements

If your primary interest is ensuring that your offspring sees only kid-appropriate Internet content, the Web tab is for you. Here you’ll find three options—Allow Unrestricted Access to Websites, Try to Limit Access to Adult Websites Automatically, and Allow Access to Only These Websites. The first is self-explanatory. The second option, when enabled, uses Apple’s filters to screen out mature content. (If you choose this option, you can also click a Customize button to include or exclude specific websites.) Enable the third option, and a list appears that includes such kid-friendly sites as Discovery Kids, PBS Kids, Scholastic.com, and Smithsonian Institution. You can add more sites by clicking the Plus (+) button at the bottom of the window.

You can use Parental Controls to filter out inappropriate websites.
Next: Socializing, time limits, and more.

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